In 1926, Carter G. Woodson, a Harvard-trained educator, working with the Association for the Study of Negro Life established Black History Week – an opportunity to honor the largely unknown contributions of those of African descent and to celebrate the essence of a history that is integral to the narrative of America as apple pie.
Nearly 100 years later (92 to be exact), black history in the United States remains incomplete, inauthentic and lopsided. The dominant narrative reinforces negative stereotypes and assumptions that devalue black and brown bodies in America. We are familiar with the common threads – school-to-prison pipeline, mass incarceration, educational achievement gaps to name a few. We are less familiar with (or perhaps less willing to acknowledge) the systemic and structural forces that sustain and lock in advantage; a self-reinforcing system that has been operating for hundreds of years. Moreover, often we recycle our praise for those commonly-known historical figures in black history; leaving a vast delta of information about the unique contributions of black people across disciplines and genres hidden, unacknowledged or forgotten.
As an African American woman living in this moment, the promise and peril of what civil rights leaders in the 1950s and 1960s referred to as “beloved community,” seems ever present. It is hard to remain hopeful in the midst of such palpable divisiveness, polarizing forces, coarse language and deeds that are antithetical to creating a society that is inclusive, loving and just. Those who fought, sacrificed, and died deserve our reverence and gratitude, for sure. Significantly, however, to honor the legacy of their contributions demands not only celebratory moments, but also recommitting ourselves to action toward building beloved community.
Remembering the past is important to create pathways toward greater understanding, productive dialogue, cross-cultural trust and reconciliation. Discovering those core pieces of American history is vital to building these bridges. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently published a study reflecting our failure as a nation to adequately educate about the difficult and complex history of American slavery; treating slavery as an event rather than integral part of who we are as a country. We must honestly confront our shared history and its relationship to contemporary racial gaps and inequities. Any discussion toward building beloved community cannot take place without confronting the difficult history of American slavery because this history continues to shape our conceptions of race, who belongs
With Black History Month upon us, I’m mindful of the students, scholars, activists and ordinary citizens who found the courage to remain determined and engaged in the midst of great challenges, vulnerability and danger in order to demand basic human dignity and racial justice. In fact, it was college students and other young people who declared Black History as a month-long exploration rather than a week. Confining black history to a week or month is not the point. The heart of the matter for me is that context matters.
This moment signifies our shared history—black history matters for all of us—the story of how America developed, prospered and created an imperfect union, one that continues to bear fruit in rich and complex ways. It’s about educating ourselves and discovering those foundational pieces and hard truths of American history like the enslavement of free people of African descent, genocidal acts like lynching, segregation and the discrimination of Jim Crow, along with the numerous contributions made by black people to the fabric of American life and culture, as well as its infrastructure and industrial capacity. We remember so others will not forget; to affirm and to build a better world. We cannot change that which we do not know and understand or for which we hold little or no respect and curiosity.
This month and beyond, I will acknowledge with pride those whose efforts continue to inspire and make history—from the freedom fighters of the Civil Rights Movement (too numerous to name), the vibrancy of the Harlem Renaissance, Pauli Murray, Audre Lorde; to more contemporary history makers including Black Lives Matter, Colin Kaepernick, Ana Duvernay, Shonda Rhimes, Beyoncé, authors like Ibram Kendi and Isabel Wilkerson, Black Panther – the movie, to the official portraits of former President Obama and Michelle Obama, both created by black artists whose subjects and works will hang in the National Gallery for all time. Additionally, as CDO, I will continue to build our capacity to embed and infuse diversity, equity and inclusion throughout the strategic priorities of the institution and to cultivate more productive ways of engaging across differences. The goal is that SU is a place where we harness the power of our differences, embrace creative tension and grow together.
I remain hopeful in the midst of challenging times because of the courageous citizens on this campus and beyond who are doing their part to build a more just and humane society—toward beloved community.
– Natasha Martin
Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion
I’m half Black, half Cuban. Growing up my father never spoke Spanish in the house and I never asked why. My father was a man that never saw color, he always believed you should “trust the soul of a man rather than the look of him.” (Remember the Titans–Coach Yoast). In Petersburg, Va., where I was born and raised, my father became the first Negro in the 60’s to drive a city bus. At the time this was unheard of. He battled his way through racism, and other challenges of negative behavior because he was the only black bus driver for Petersburg Va. Transit Co. (see cover photo). I can remember my mother telling me a story about father’s first week at work. She described it as “hell pure”. Your father pulls up and says, “good morning everyone.” The white passengers were furious and they would not board the bus.
So, a group of blacks walked pass the group of white passengers and boarded the bus, deposited their fare and said, “good morning.” After a few minutes the white passengers began to board the bus. They shouted racial slurs, they spit on my father and other passengers and said “hey nigger whose bus did you steal?” as they walked passed him. On top of that, they didn’t pay their fare. When all the passengers got seated, my father put the bus in park and removed his seat belt and stood up. He wasn’t a small man. He stood tall at a height of 6ft 5inches. He began to speak to all the passengers on the bus. This is what he said, “I’m the bus driver and this my route, but if I’m the driver of this bus, you will not disrespect me, put your hands on me or spit on me. Lastly if you have a problem with what I said or I have offended you, you can just remove yourself from my bus.”
He returned to his seat, fastened his seat belt, and put the bus in gear and started driving toward Downtown Petersburg. During the bus ride the atmosphere on the bus was so silent you could hear a pin drop. After about a 50-minute bus ride, the bus arrives in Downtown Petersburg. The bus comes to a stop and my father opens the door and all passengers began to exit. As white passengers walked past my father to exit the bus, they deposited their fare and shook my fathers hand and apologized to him and the last white passenger asked if they would we him see later that day, to which my father responded, “yes you will and I will get you home safe to your family.”
Black History Month, to me, means a celebration of knowledge. It’s a reflection of the past, present and future in African American Culture. It’s a reminder of all the positive and innovative things that have come from our culture and how it made a huge impact on future generations. It is a time for everyone to experience culture and the roots of many things that have evolved from those of African American decent.
Also it’s a time to inform everyone who may not be exposed to African American History the rest of the year. Let’s all take the time to remember the hardships and struggle, but it doesn’t stop there. It’s a remembrance of what we strive for and how the ones before us have paved a way for the things we have today.
– Ricco Bland
Public Safety Officer
My grandmother was the most influential person in my life until her death in 1997. Today, I draw inspiration both from her memory and the legacy of love and compassion she left behind. I experienced a safe, secure, loving childhood that occurred at the valuable intersection of two circumstances; the youth of my parents and the love of my grandmother. I was positioned to witness the broad range of painful human experiences and given a unique set of assets and blessings that allowed me the ability to develop and grow my understanding of the world I inhabit. Early in my upbringing, my grandmother introduced me to the writings of W.E.B. DuBois. And while I was not fully capable on my own of making sense of his writings as a youngster, the messages of his experiences spoke truth to my reality as I began to mature and grow in my understanding of the world around me. His words of the early 1900s still ring true for me today and underscore the significance of Black History Month in my life so I share them with you in that spirit.
After the Egyptian and the Indian, the Greek and the Roman, the Teuton and the Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. (DuBois, 1903)
Accordingly, Black History Month is less a month and more a movement that remains alive in me with each breath I take. It is represented in my family who gave me voice and liberated me from the poor rural up bringing that shackled so many before and after me. Black History Month is about deliverance, freedom, reframing experiences, renaming reality and retelling the truth. H. Alexander Welcome (2004) asserted:
The life histories of Whites are used as the standard against which Blacks are encouraged to strive. The employment of this ontology fallaciously limits the range of Black agency, producing deceitful narratives where the navigation of the social environment by Blacks is dictated by either a passive response to, or a passive adoption of, White scripts. The utilization of whiteness to determine and/or evaluate blackness begins when whiteness and White life histories come to represent what is “right.” (p. 61)
Black History is about transformation, consciousness, definition, and debunking myths and lies. It is represented in the narratives and oral histories of my ancestors told to me by my grandparents and parents and to be shared forward with my own children and the generations to come. It is about an increased understanding of the contributions of Black people throughout our muddled history. It is ultimately about truth and reconciliation.
– Alvin Sturdivant
Vice President, Student Development
Picture Detroit, Michigan in the 1970’s and you can begin to imagine my childhood. By the time I was ten years old, the mayor of Detroit was a black man, Coleman Young. The superintendent of public schools, Arthur Jefferson, was also a black man. I was blessed to grow up in times permeated by James Brown (“I’m black and I’m proud), the Black Panthers, dashikis, afro hair, and going every Sunday to Triedstone Baptist Church and later Detroit’s Afro-American Mission. In my memory, I hear people reminding me that the history of my race was something of which to be proud.
Calendars my parents received from black businesses in town served as black history storybooks. (I honestly can’t remember if they were sent by funeral homes or insurance agencies.) Every year, we received a new calendar depicting black people succeeding in various fields such as Dorie Miller, a Navy gunner killed at Pearl Harbor and honored for his bravery, and Ida B. Wells, the journalist and sociologist who brought lynching into the national consciousness. Black history was not confined to a month at my public school. Yet, February afforded an opportunity for heightened reflections on what it meant to be black in America.
Today, February still feels like a time to remember, to catch hold of the past and allow it to inspire me in the present. I recently joked with a friend that I should write a book titled “The Re-education of this Negro” as I have struggled with the times – police brutality against young black men and women, regular reminders of mass incarceration and injustice under the law. At times, the bleakness of the current day overwhelms me. I wish I could say that seeing all of the wrongs propels me toward solutions but at times I feel immobilized by the weight of racism. In contrast, it seems to me that Dr. Woodson called black people to have a knowledge of history because an understanding of the accomplishments of one’s forbears was essential to inspiration, aspiration, and justice. Increasingly, as I struggle with this present darkness I feel the need to draw on the dreams and victories of those who came before. I want to remember how they maintained faith and laughter as well as how tears and sorrow drove them forward.
What’s black history month to me? It is both a call and a light. Black history month is the call of many voices saying “Remember. Press on.” Black history month is a light in the darkness that shows a way forward. Black history is about more than a month but this month reminds me to pause and locate myself within history.
– Holly Slay Ferraro
Associate Professor, Management